October 1, 2008

Of Eucharistic Miracles and Stigmata

Ben, from whom I've learned a lot through his comments here, recently challenged me on the coherence of some of my posts. He asked, pretty astutely I think, how it is that I can be so into the stigmata of St. Francis but dismiss so-called "Eucharistic miracles" at the same time. This is a really fascinating question, and I've been thinking about it a little bit. I'm not confident that this is a complete answer, but here are some of my preliminary reflections.

There are multiple questions here. First, what is the theological relationship between stigmata and Eucharistic miracles? The phenomena are similar in some sense, but how? And how do they differ? Second, why does my gut tell me one is worthy of reverence and the other a distraction? Can I give an account of what I allege to be my intuition?

Both phenomena are a case of the usually invisible Presence of Christ becoming miraculously visible. In the stigmata the usually mystical and spiritual identification of Christ with suffering humanity becomes visible in some analogue of the wounds of the Passion appearing on the individual Christian. In a Eucharistic miracle it is alleged that the "substance of the body of Christ" or the "substance of his blood," (1) become sensible as themselves, rather than retaining the accidents of bread and wine under which they usually appear.

The great gift of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ is the identification of God with human suffering. In Christ, God descends into and identifies himself with the suffering, alienation, and pain we have brought upon ourselves and each other with our sins. In Christ, God means to save us from the inside, identifying himself with our pain so as to offer our humanity a means of escape and freedom. In his Passion, the humanity of Christ identifies with our suffering, even to the final suffering of being alienated from God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." By the divinity joined hypostatically to his humanity, the death he endures cannot hold him and a path through suffering and death to New Life is opened up.

This gift is available to all Christians. In Christ, God's passionate desire is to humbly identify with our suffering so as to redeem and liberate us from its power, influence, and misery. All we have to do is allow God to identify with us through faith, through prayer, and especially through the communion he gives us with his humanity in the Eucharist. To me, the stigmata marks an individual case in which a Christian has accomplished this consent to God in a way so exceptional that the identification becomes visible in his or her own flesh. So I guess to me the stigmata is a joyful and miraculous sign of heroic human consent to God's own desire to save us.

Now the Eucharist is also a humble identification of God with the physical world. By identifying himself with the bread and wine offered as the sacrifice of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ gives us both a memorial of the one sacrifice of the Cross and a means to continuously "augment" (2) the union of his humanity with ours. In the sacred species the body and blood of Christ, born of Mary, dying on the Cross, and raised up in glory are truly and really present, but retains the sensible appearance, feel, smell, and taste of bread and wine after the consecration. In a Eucharistic miracle this ordinary situation, which God has presumably ordained, seems to be suspended and the accidents of the bread and wine give way to the visible and sensible presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.

I have two basic problems with these miracles on a theological level. First, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the presence of the whole Christ. Each host and each sip of the Precious Blood all over the world each day is the presence not of a part of the Christ, but of the whole Christ. In trying to teach this truth, St. Thomas uses what I think is a delightful image: he says that the Eucharist is like a broken mirror, in which the whole reflection becomes visible in each little piece.(3) In a so-called Eucharistic miracle, this truth of the faith seems to be lost. What allegedly becomes sensible is a piece of the flesh of Christ or a portion of his Precious Blood. It's not the whole Christ that our faith tells us is present.

Second, it seems to me that the "hiddenness" of the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of its meaning. To me the humility of the Lord who is willing to become a little piece of bread is one of the most spiritually overwhelming and deep aspects of the Eucharist. But perhaps this is a Franciscan prejudice. (4)

So, as the beginning of a reflection, I guess this is why I feel like stigmata is something to be reverenced but Eucharistic miracles are a distraction, because the former represents for me a heroic consent to God's desire on the part of one human being, while the latter obscures for me both the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist and its meaning as I have come to appreciate it.

Finally, let me say by way of disclaimer that I would never want to belittle the faith of those for whom Eucharistic miracles seem to mean a lot. For me, the "by their fruits you shall know them" certainly applies, and if the worship and celebration of these phenomena produces faith and devotion to the Eucharistic on the part of the faithful who appreciate them, then I'm all for it.

1. Council of Trent, 1551, quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376.
2. Catechism, 1391.
3. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 76, a. 3.
4. "“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the little form of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves, as well, that you may be exalted by Him. Therefore, hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally” Francis of Assisi, Letter to the Entire Order.


ben in denver said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful reply.

I am especially struck by this comment of yours:

“So I guess to me the stigmata is a joyful and miraculous sign of heroic human consent to God's own desire to save us.”

And I have to wonder if this isn’t the real root of the distinction. The Eucharist is ultimately only and always about God and from Him. Because He is perfect, He cannot disappoint. In fact, and disappointment in Him or lack of faith in the Eucharist does not and cannot have its origin in Him, but has its origin in us. In the example of the saint, the stigmata express something different. While the sign (and even the man) find their origin in God, the consent does not. The consent comes from one of our brothers, one of the sons of Adam, and this is a cause for joy.

In a way I’m reminded of the Ascension, where we have as a source of joy that our human nature in the Son of Man has taken its place at the right hand of the Father. The stigmata are, I suppose a sign of a little ascension--an indication that one of our brothers has really made it.

Concerning the Eucharist, your 2 theological points seem to go well together: the whole Christ is hidden in the smallest fragment of the Eucharistic species. But a Eucharistic miracle does not invalidate transubstantiation does it? If, for example, a chalice full of the Precious Blood acquired the accidents of Christ’s blood, wouldn’t we continue to believe in faith that the Whole Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity was there? Even in the cases of the most dramatic Eucharistic miracles, something of the whole Christ remains hidden. Instead what happens is that in addition to a total change in the substance of the bread and wine, some partial change in the accidents takes place.

Brother Charles said...

Very interesting what you say about stigmata and the Lord's Ascension; I've never thought about it that way. I guess it's so much identified with the Passion that I never noticed what it might mean for the ascension of glorified humanity. I'll have to think about this one...the wounds on the Risen Lord have always fascinated and encouraged me.

Also what you say about my "whole Christ" comments is well taken and I'll try to catch some of that nuance if I revisit these things.

Thanks as always, Ben, for the thoughtful and encouraging dialogue.